Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
White House Initiative on AAPI Working Group
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Thank you Secretary Locke for your kind introduction...
Good afternoon everyone!
Good afternoon: Secretary Duncan (may, or may not be there); Tina Tchen; Chris Lu, Kiran Ahuja; Pat Shiu... and everyone here today...
It's a pleasure to be with all of you in our joint effort to help improve the lives of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
I am very proud of my long-established relationship with the AAPI community that dates back to my early days as a California state legislator.
During that time, I helped enslaved Thai garment workers to find freedom...
And I made sure that the AAPI community had access to information about domestic violence so as to understand that it is a family matter and that it is preventable, but also a crime.
I became a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), and spearheaded projects to improve living conditions for this community such as how to start a business and pursue a higher education.
Later, as a Congresswoman, I introduced legislation to reduce inequities in health and brought national attention to the importance of cultural and linguistic competencies when dealing with these communities.
And as your Secretary of Labor, my commitment to help this community continues.
Just this past May, I held the first of what I hope will be an ongoing discussion with AAPI stakeholders to find solutions for the challenges facing low-wage workers.
We also discussed the Gulf oil spill and specifically how it has impacted the Southeast Asian fishing community.
This meeting prompted me to personally visit the Gulf Coast to see it for myself.
As you are well aware, the Gulf Coast is home to a large population of Southeast Asian immigrants: Vietnamese, Laotians, Thai, and Cambodians. Some 24,000 Vietnamese live in Louisiana alone.
During my trip, I made sure my team and I met with these communities who were still trying to get back on their feet after Hurricane Katrina... but now faced this new and catastrophic situation.
We went to Louisiana, and to my dismay, discovered that government services were not easily accessible to these communities.
It was also clear that they lacked familiarity with government processes and to a certain extent, mistrusted it...
Additionally, we found that information was not reaching these hardest-hit communities in large part because of language and cultural barriers.
Also, they proved reluctant to receive government assistance despite considerable need. Their true desire is to go back to work.
Many of the people I mention to you have deep roots in the seafood industry.
In fact, it is generational.
Families pool their resources together to purchase fishing vessels and become shrimpers.
At the meeting, we discovered that many were frustrated and afraid to the extent that some of them drove six hours from Mississippi to Houma, Louisiana just to tell us what they were going through.
They shared their desperate need to find work again, to make ends meet.
At one point, a Vietnamese fisher held up the training certification card and said, "why get trained if they will not hire."
A Vietnamese woman had tears running down her cheeks as she explained through the interpreter her husband's struggle to find work.
Those are just some of the many stories I personally heard... I could see their suffering in their eyes.
There were and still are many problems that need to be tackled.
So we were there to remind them and tell them in person that this Administration was there to help them!
Our team immediately took action!
So, what worked?
My team spoke various languages.
We immediately began to distribute federal information and resources for the unemployed and under-employed.
Also for the people taking part in the beach clean-up... because they too have labor rights.
The information was distributed in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian.
I ordered that the Department of Labor "One-Stop" centers be used as a centralized hub of resources and information to facilitate access for these diverse communities.
We have now begun to identify community stakeholders to work at the One-Stop centers to further assist with language and culture competency issues.
The resources at the "One-Stop" centers include job postings, job training, interpreters, housing assistance, and small business assistance.
People can also get help with filling out their paperwork.
Because many workers may have literacy needs there are now ESL classes available... even math and computer courses. They can take these courses while they are receiving BP payments, or even while they are working... cleaning-up the beach or operating vessels of opportunity.
As a follow-up to my trip I wrote a memo to President Obama sharing with him our experiences and our recommendations.
I also directed a Department of Labor leadership team to do follow-up and go to all four states on the Gulf Coast: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida:
- On the ground was the Employment and Training Administration, Assistant Secretary Jane Oates,
- Wage and Hour Division Acting Administrator Nancy Leppink,
- Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs Director Patricia Shiu
- And since day one, we've had over 50 OSHA members on the ground to make sure workers' rights are respected and appropriate safety precautions are adhered to by BP contractors.
All of the agencies I just mentioned dispatched regional staff to reach out to various labor representatives, faith-based and community leaders; elected and appointed officials in all four Gulf Coast states.
The delegation visited the Oil Spill Resources and Claims Fair in Mississippi observed the claims process and raised issues of concern with BP representatives.
They set up two exhibits with materials from OSHA and the Wage and Hour Division...
... As always, in multiple languages explaining safety and workers protection laws.
And our leadership team met with Vietnamese fishers, crabbers, and boat owners at Biloxi City Public Dock.
We learned that many people continue to wait for jobs from BP on the Vessel of Opportunity program but these never came through.
Furthermore, our Wage and Hour Division is developing "Frequently Asked Questions" in different languages regarding hours worked, overtime, training time and other issues to assist the Asian Pacific Islander community in accessing appropriate information.
The Wage and Hour Division will continue to communicate with BP - per their request -about contractors who are not paying workers or are illegally charging workers for safety equipment and training.
As a result of this set of meetings, I will be sending a letter to BP shortly making additional recommendations about what we see as insufficient progress.
To sum up, our agencies are collaborating and partnering to help the people affected on the ground and we are reaching out to community leaders to design additional venues to disseminate the information.
I recently met with Father Vien, a former pastor who is very much involved with helping the Southeast Asian community during these troublesome times and will be working with him to improve our outreach.
We are creating Public Service Announcements in Vietnamese... they will be airing on the radio in the Gulf Coast very soon.
Clearly, this problem is not going to go away any time soon and we need to have a plan in place.
I think that we should start looking at developing a program similar to the Promotoras for that region; training local ombudsmen to help address health and mental health issues and concerns... and to work with the communities on prevention and provide health services.
I will reassign regional staff to the region to work with the stakeholders in the region to address problems such as... workers are being told they need to pay for their own equipment.
It's important we work with the Housing and Urban Development to address housing issues, and with the Small Business Administration to address loans concerns... and many other federal agencies to help meet the needs of a diverse affected community.
And we should especially train young people in the areas of high-growth industry such as green jobs and health care; they are our future and we need to help them prepare for those jobs.
The Department of Labor is working to ensure "good and safe jobs for everyone, regardless of ethnicity and language."
That is our goal.
I want to take a moment to recognize my wonderful AAPI staff at the Department of Labor:
Pat Shiu, Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs
Phil Tom, Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships
Paul Igasaki, Chief Judge of Arbitration Review Board (ARB)
Betsy Kim, Director of the Executive Secretariat
And Cindy Chen, my Special Assistant.
Thank you everyone for being with us today. I look forward to hearing your comments.